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Senate Approves Limits on High-Profile Lobbying

Times Staff Writer

The Senate voted Wednesday to impose new rules to rein in the clout wielded by lobbyists on Capitol Hill, but critics charged the measure would fall short of significantly curbing the influence peddling.

The bill, which passed 90 to 8, aims to eliminate some of the more high-profile connections between lobbyists and lawmakers. It would end the common practice of lobbyists buying meals for senators or providing gifts -- such as tickets to sporting events -- that many lawmakers said fed the public perception that Congress was swayed by these favors.

“What we’re saying here is that there’s a sign that now is up in front of the Capitol,” said Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), one of the bill’s co-authors. “It says: ‘Not for Sale.’ ”

The measure also would for the first time enable senators to challenge funding of some special projects often tucked into bills at the behest of lobbyists. Still, many of these so-called earmarks that are attached each year to spending bills would remain exempt from challenge.

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Other changes would require lobbyists to more frequently report their dealings with lawmakers and their contributions to their campaigns, filing the information to a database searchable online by the public.

Also, former members of Congress and senior aides would have to wait two years instead of one before lobbying their onetime colleagues. And senators could no longer put a secret “hold” on legislation or nominations, a behind-the-scenes move that blocks action on such matters.

Senators who pushed for more sweeping changes said the measure would leave much of lobbyists’ power intact. For instance, the bill contains no limits on lobbyists’ ability to rely on their contacts and clients to generate large campaign contributions.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who voted against the bill, said that although some lawmakers viewed the bill’s passage as “a major feat,” he considered its provisions “very, very weak.”

McCain spoke after votes were blocked on amendments he offered, including one that would have required senators to pay charter rates when they traveled on corporate jets. The lawmakers usually pay much less.

Others complained that the bill would not ban lawmakers’ travel paid for by private groups and would not create an independent office of public integrity to investigate senators or staffers accused of unethical conduct.

“What ethics bill?” Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) said of the measure, which he opposed.

McCain and Coburn attacked the bill for not giving senators broader power to question earmarks. For instance, challenges could only be lodged against projects added during House-Senate negotiations over a final spending measure. Many earmarks are put into bills in each chamber before those negotiations.

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Still, supporters said the Senate’s revised rules would put some distance between lobbyists and lawmakers and make it easier for the public to track their links.

“This is not popular stuff [in the bill], but it’s the right thing to do,” said Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.). “This legislation upends the status quo with regard to oversight of the ... relationship between lobbyists and members of Congress.”

California’s senators, Democrats Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, were among those voting for the bill.

The Senate’s measure also lays down a marker for the House, which is studying changes to its guidelines for dealing with lobbyists.

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The two chambers do not have to adopt the same rules, but their changes must be included in a single bill that would require President Bush’s signature to become law.

Backers of the Senate bill praised its passage as a step toward restoring Congress’ battered reputation among many voters before the November elections.

Public opinion of the House and Senate has dropped in nationwide polls since scandals involving former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Rancho Santa Fe) and lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Late last year, Cunningham pleaded guilty to accepting bribes from defense contractors in return for steering their way federal projects worth millions of dollars. He resigned from office and this month was sentenced to more than eight years in prison.

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Abramoff, who lavished food, drink and luxury trips on some lawmakers and their staff and steered hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign donations to House members and senators, pleaded guilty in January to several corruption charges. He is awaiting sentencing in that case. In a separate case, he was sentenced Wednesday in Florida to about six years in prison on charges of wire fraud and conspiracy.

The coincidence did not go unnoticed as the Senate debated its lobbying measure.

“I think it is significant that this bill passed on the day that [Abramoff] received his first prison sentence,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). “It was the scandals involving Mr. Abramoff and former Rep. Cunningham that prompted us to take a harder look at practices that, while legal, eroded public confidence” in Congress.

Collins said she believed the Senate’s action would begin to restore “the bonds of trust” between lawmakers and the public.

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Several government watchdog groups, however, were among the bill’s critics.

“I really think that if members of the Senate think they can pass a bill that is largely window dressing and not deal with the really tough issues and then go back to the voters and convince them they have done something, they have another think coming,” said Chellie Pingree, president of the citizens’ lobbying group Common Cause. “This bill lacks the critical things that would really change the atmosphere of corruption in Washington.”

Pingree said that although the bill would improve disclosure requirements for lobbyists, “there’s very little that breaks down this nexus between lobbyists as fundraisers and sources of campaign funds, which is much of the root of what goes on that creates the scandals.”

She said her group and other watchdog organizations feared the measures approved by the Senate might be further watered down in negotiations with the House.

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“The tragedy is that we were counting on the Senate to be the leaders,” Pingree said.


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